by Svetozar Radojčić

In the beginning, Serb settlers were hostile towards the Greek and Romanic towns they came into contact with. They did not become accustomed to city life until the end of the twelfth century. First of all, this process evolved through the monasteries that were erected as urban ensembles, which, in the Middle Ages were considered to be ideal towns. The Serbs became acquainted with the monastery-city through the monastic settlements on the Holy Mount, from which they also accepted the form and name of the lavra. With them they also accepted the old belief that the monastery was a city and the symbol of the Church and the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the Byzantine world these concepts were connected with Constantinople, which through the laudes Constantinopolitanae was initially hailed as the New Jerusalem, the New Zion and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Such a Constantinople as the image of the earthly and heavenly Jerusalem and the exemplary city of the Orthodox Christian rulers would be emulated by the Slav peoples of Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia. The old Serbian authors particularly extol Constantinople and Thessalonica, calling them imperial cities, safeguarded by God, and cities of God. The ancient ideas about the perfect city, conveyed from Byzantium in the eleventh and twelfth century to Russia, began their renewed life in the Serbian state from the second half of the fourteenth century. In keeping with sources of a literary and religious nature, the author links the course of those complex and ambitious ideas, whereby they wished to explain the ultimate meaning of the construction and existence of the city.

Ravanica monastery, built in 1375–1377 as an endowment of prince Lazar of Serbia

The ideas of the similarity of the heavenly and earthly palace and of the similarity of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly city acquired certain clarity in the mentality of the Serbian late feudal society. However, they did not arise from the dynastic concept of the Nemanjic family, which had more realistic economic, military and political foundations. The new wave of piety originated from the circles of educated refugee monks, who found refuge in the small palaces, where a rather complex, monastic-feudal mentality gradually formed. The palace culture of those centres had their own pious literature, where various visions of the invisible Paradise were particularly widely read.
The old idea that all the righteous would attain Heaven gained a new importance and a new interpretation at the end of the XIV century. This faith in the habitation of Heaven began to be linked to buildings on earth — to cities and monasteries. The depiction of Heaven, or the Upper Jerusalem, as it was called, had already begun in Serbian painting in the mid-fourteenth century. Around 1400, however, there was an insistence on presenting how the organisation of the palace was similar to the heavenly hierarchy, how the courtiers with their appearance looked like the inhabitants of Paradise, and how the building the royal court erected resembled the heavenly houses of the "New Jerusalem". Such descriptions about the resemblance to the dwellings of Heaven were very frequent in Serbian literature of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.

Monastery Manasija also known as Resava founded by Despot Stefan Lazarević between 1406[1] and 1418

Prince Lazar resorted with increasing frequency to creating buildings according to the image of the "Upper Jerusalem", especially the monastery of Ravanica. Andonije Epaktit gave the most exhaustive account of Ravanica-Jerusalem: Ravanica was the "dwelling of God" and the "door to Heaven", it had seven pinnacles or pyrgoi, and accordingly, it was similar to Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople, and it was inhabited by monk-angels. Constantine the Philosopher wrote in a similar vein. His magnificent description of Belgrade as Jerusalem in the Life of Despotes Stefan Lazarevic falls among the most important eulogies of the cities in Byzantine culture. And Belgrade — like Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople — has "seven pinnacles". It resembles both the "lower" and the "higher" Jerusalem; so as to underline the similarities of Belgrade and Jerusalem, Constantine glorifies Despotes Stefan Lazarevic as Solomon and Nehemiah; he describes the "heavenly" perfection of the Despotes's civil administration and army, relying on Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The comparisons that followed from this initial thought became even more inappropriate exaggerations: Belgrade was Jerusalem, the Despotes's administration was heavenly, and the Danube was, in fact, the Phison, one of the four rivers of Heaven.

Belgrade Fortress, Despot Staphan Lazarevic's Gate

Towards the mid-fifteenth century, the old eulogies to the cities of the Byzantine world died out, making way for a new literary genre: the laments (threnoi) over Constantinople. The dreams of Heaven on earth, of the Jerusalem-like sublimity of the cities that the Turks destroyed one after the other — all of these disappeared before their very eyes. In December 1456, an eloquent man of Smederevo, while delivering a funeral sermon to Despotes Djuradj Brankovic, also invoked the fallen Constantinople (already under Turkish occupation for three years) to grieve for the Despotes, with words that indeed sounded like the lament over Constantinople and the Constantinople refugees in Smederevo. The vast, collective, Balkan Christian funeral rite marked the end of an epoch and buried a tragic, unattainable thought. The great dream of a migration to an unseen Paradise simply remained a consolation, like some blurred vision of beauty and the meaning of death in times when the mere survival of the human being was increasingly threatened.

Belgrade, October 1971

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